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Is Pope Francis Too Radical for American Politics?

As Pope Francis gains admirers, he simultaneously alienates some American Catholics and Catholic allies.

Photo Courtesy: KPBS
Photo Courtesy: KPBS

By Catherine Crawford

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Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ and, according to The Washington Post, he is as popular, if not more, than John Paul II.

As James Carroll writes in a long profile in the New Yorker, “It is clear that Pope Francis is not a liberal. But if he initiates a true shift in the way that power is exercised in the Church he may turn out to be a radical.” After being elected pope in March of this year, he has shaken up the now-ascendant "Catholic = Conservative" mindset in American politics by doing three things:

De-emphasizing traditional culture war touchstones.
 In a September interview in the Catholic magazine America, Francis said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.”

That’s a stark contrast to the guidance from conservative Catholic leaders like Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who in 2004 said that voting for John Kerry would be a sin requiring confession.

His flair for symbolism:
 Shortly after his election, Francis made headlines when he washed the feet of a dozen inmates — including the feet of Muslim and women prisoners. As then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he reportedly washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.

In December, The Huffington Post cited “a knowledgeable source” confirming rumors that Francis heads out at night beyond Vatican walls to give alms to the poor. These acts have stayed on cable news headlines for days.

His focus on the poor and criticism of liberal capitalism.
 In November, Francis denounced “the idolatry of money.” In a 50,000-word written statement, he described trickle-down economics as “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh described Francis’ writings as “just pure Marxism.”

Take these three together — an aversion to culture war fights, adoration by the mainstream media, and skepticism of concentrated wealth — and you have a recipe for increasing friction between Francis and parts of the American conservative movement.

That would be contrary to the general trend: Since Nixon, the GOP has made steady gains among Catholics, to the point where Catholics are now prominent across the leadership of the party. 

As for the rest of us? I grew up in a devout Catholic household where statements made by any reigning pope were regarded as coming straight from God. So I understand why many American Catholics, especially conservative ones, feel the shift in Francis’ focus like a shock to the system. Bridget Kurt, an ardent Catholic in Georgia, feels like Francis is letting here down. “Even when it was discouraging working in pro-life, you always felt like Mother Teresa was on your side and the popes were encouraging you," Kurt told The New York Times. "Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus.”

For others like me, however, it reignites a pride in my Catholic roots.

Do you think Pope Francis will make substantive changes to the Catholic church? Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

Mark Wendell December 29, 2013 at 07:50 PM
Depends were you live.
Bob Griffiths December 29, 2013 at 09:29 PM
This is a poorly researched and superficial generalization of the Pope’s message to the world. This topic deserves a deeper moral analysis than this piece offers. http://manchester-nj.patch.com/groups/bob-griffithss-blog/p/pope-francis-speaking-to-the-heart-of-america
Bob Griffiths December 29, 2013 at 09:31 PM
In Chapter 2 of this Papal message, the Pontiff deals directly with the economics of inequality. The Pope believes that all economies have a responsibility to safeguard the value of human life. He goes on to say, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points”? The Pope expands on the topic of economic exclusion when he says, “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape”. [53] Pope Francis points out that we have created a “throw away” culture. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Many in our society are not simply “exploited” but rather have become outcasts and “leftovers”, no longer even a part of the economic community. [53] In a somewhat surprising and controversial statement Pope Francis directly attacks conservative “trickle-down” economic theory when he states that there is no reason to assume it brings economic growth. He renders the opinion that it's validity has never been confirmed by facts and it expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power. Trickle-down economics sustains a lifestyle that excludes others, maintains a selfish ideal, and globalizes indifference. “Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own”. [54] Pope Francis feels the primary cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our society. He says, “The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose”. [55] Additionally, the Pope’s message points out that humanity is at a turning point in our history. We must embrace the efforts of those that strive to reverse this profound human crisis. He further states, “We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications”. [52] The release of this Papal Exhortation created a tremor within those partisans that believe free markets are without exploitation or malfeasance. Conservative pundits immediately rejected the Pope’s effort to humanize capitalism and instead fired false claims that the Pope’s message of compassion was instead a form of Marxism. In no uncertain terms Pope Francis has defended his criticism of “trickle-down” economics from rightwing backfire by saying, "There was the promise that once the glass had become full it would overflow and the poor would benefit. But what happens is that when it's full to the brim, the glass magically grows, and thus nothing ever comes out for the poor ... I repeat: I did not talk as a specialist but according to the social doctrine of the church. And this does not mean being a Marxist."
Artist/Engineer December 30, 2013 at 06:43 AM
It's about time a leader of the Catholic Church started to speak as if he actually read the bible and learned the lessons Jesus taught. I'm all for Pope Francis and the shake up he is causing among his followers.

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